Recovering Authentic Ecumenism

COMMENTARY on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio

Second Vatican Council
Second Vatican Council (photo: Wikipedia)

Unitatis Redintegratio, the  landmark Second Vatican Council decree on ecumenism that was promulgated 50 years ago Nov. 21, represents the desire of the contemporary Church to realize again the Lord’s prayer in the Gospel according to St. John: “That they all may be one as you Father are in me and I in you” (John 17:21).

In 1964, this initiative was full of promise that the old enmities that had divided Christendom would finally be overcome, and both the Eastern rites and the Protestant churches would again be reunited with the Catholic Church. This represented a great sea change regarding the practice of the Church in her approach to other Christians, especially the Protestant sects. Together with the decree on religious freedom, this is probably the most controversial document of Vatican II.

As is the case with many theological ideas that involve the practice of the virtue of prudence, some nuances are necessary to understand just what the teaching of the Council is and what it is not. The first thing to keep clear is that Church teaching can be a matter of doctrine, which is always held firm and can only change in the sense that our understanding of it deepens. Also, laws which implement the teaching of the Church are of various types, and if it is a matter of the moral law, this too cannot change.

These two, however, are distinct from the question of how one goes about practically implementing one’s idea of the truth. The latter is the purpose of the virtue of prudence. So while affirming the absolute truths of faith and morals, there still may be a difference in technique of how to best present these truths to the world.

For most of the history of the Church, there really was no ecumenism, in the strict sense of the word. Heresy was heresy, and if there was an outreach to those who were considered heterodox, this was much regulated. In 1960s, all this changed largely in response to the growing secularism of culture. Europe had seen two disastrous world wars, the latter of which was partly prosecuted by totalitarian governments (Germany and Italy) that were unapologetically atheistic. Communism succeeded these governments, also actively promoting atheism.

If Christianity was to meet this threat, a united front should be presented by all Christian churches. The division of Christianity characterized by all sorts of different sects vying for attention seemed not only a scandal contrary to the Lord’s prayer for unity but threatened the Church’s attempt to meet the totalitarian threat.

The bishops seemed very alive also to the idea that many of the believers in various Christian communities perhaps had no clear picture of why the original divisions in Christianity occurred and perhaps a more prudent approach was not just condemnation but seeking real points of union.

An important point to note is that, already in the document on the Church. there was a distinction made between other Churches (the Eastern Christians) and ecclesial communities (Protestant sects) regarding this approach. The bishops purposely did not apply the name church to these latter groups.

Theoretically, the thrust of the ecumenical movement would entail a true knowledge of the doctrine of other Christian communities, both regarding its positive aspects and the places which cause division. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Churches are one with the Church is all things except some aspects of the primacy of Rome. Protestant communities share two sacraments (baptism and marriage) and a love for Scripture. The second means of positive union would be common cooperation at the service of humanity in promoting the moral good of man. The pro-life movement springs to mind as a place where Christian cooperation can be very evident.

Practically, ecumenism is based on a “change of heart” seen in a quest for holiness (Unitatis Redintegratio, 7). Any change worthy of the name entails every church admitting that it is composed of sinners. Prayers for unity, even common prayer with other communities for this purpose, are encouraged.

The Council fathers, on the other hand, warn that there are two areas where extreme caution must be exercised. If not, this will produce what popes have called “false irenicism,” which is a “peace at any price” mentality that glosses over the differences that exist between us. One cannot pretend in a dialogue that everyone is really saying the same thing or there is only a monologue.

The first of these is the recognition that though common prayer is a good thing, this does not involve a worship in common (communicatio in sacris), which would authorize intercommunion with Protestants. Communion is the final act of integration in the Church and is not to be used as a tool to create a false unity. Common worship is not to be used indiscriminately (Unitatis Redintegratio, 8)

The other danger is a seeming approval of the heresy of indifferentism, which is the teaching that all religions are equal and are really all saying the same thing. Though there are concrete truths Catholics share with Protestants, honesty demands that Catholics also affirm the places of serious disagreemen, and the sacraments are one of them.

The bishops sum up this new attitude well:

“This sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills his body to grow in the course of time” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 24)

The controversy over this document seems inspired by a fear born not from the text itself but from a radical interpretation of it that reflects the imprudent zeal and superficiality the bishops specifically sought to avoid. However, this does not alter the sincere desire the bishops had to reunite the churches, a desire sadly not yet realized.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher

and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.